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The Legacy of a Polio-Free World

September 27, 2012
New York, NY

Thank you, Senator Wirth.  Excellencies and distinguished guests, on behalf of President Obama and the American people, I want to begin by saying how proud we are to be part of the international effort to eradicate polio.

When I was born, polio was still a feared disease in the United States.  It was still common to see Americans stricken with the disease on crutches and in wheelchairs.  In 1952, when I was four, our country suffered its worst outbreak yet.  More than 21,000 people were paralyzed and 3,000 died, most of them children.

Three years later, the Salk vaccine was introduced.  And over the course of the next decades, I got to witness a modern miracle: a disease that once struck fear into the heart of every American parent disappearing completely. 

This January, I was fortunate to be in New Delhi as we marked the latest milestone in the world’s effort to eradicate the disease: a full year since India’s last case of polio.  A decade ago, India accounted for 85 percent of new polio cases worldwide.  Today, India is the latest proof that when a country makes polio eradication a social movement and creates an inescapable accountability process, we can eliminate polio anywhere. 

I want to commend the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria for establishing their own emergency action plans.  And I want to reiterate the United States’ continuing support for global eradication.  We must get over the finish line.  And that means strengthening systems down to the most remote village so that every child benefits from the protection vaccines can offer.

Over the last 20 years, the US has invested more than $2.1 billion in polio eradication, in partnership with WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International, additional donor nations, affected countries, and the Gates Foundation. 

But if we are going to wipe out polio once and for all, now is the time to redouble our efforts.  As long as the polio virus survives, there is risk of resurgence.  And the longer we take to eradicate the disease, the longer we will have to wait to free up resources that can be devoted to other urgent health needs.

That’s why the United States has significantly increased our financial support for polio eradication over the last four years.  And it’s why in December, we committed our full scientific capabilities to the effort as well, activating the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center, which allows for better coordination in our international efforts.

Now, we need all donors and partners to do their part, with affected countries in the lead.  A future in which polio is a childhood memory for the people of every country is within reach.  But we will only get there if each of us fully commits to the final push.

Thank you.